De Blasio’s costly education victory

de-blasios-costly-education-victory
Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio. (Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)
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Blake Zeff

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Put aside the chess-match analysis for a moment: The fact that Bill de Blasio is apparently on the verge of getting Albany to fork over hundreds of millions to fund pre-kindergarten is a massive victory for the mayor.

This was an idea, remember, that was widely regarded as unrealistically ambitious when de Blasio first proposed to make it happen. The fact that Andrew Cuomo is ostensibly the one calling the shots on pre-K, and taking the credit, doesn’t change the incontrovertible truth that without de Blasio, none of it would be happening.

Strip away Cuomo’s showmanship, head fakes and mastery of the meta-narrative, and here’s what you’re left with: De Blasio got an uber-controlling, fiscally conservative governor facing re-election, with nearly all the leverage to control Albany’s spending, who previously cut pre-kindergarten throughout the state, to cough up the money for a massive new social program.

We still don’t know what the final outcome of negotiations will be, of course, but we already know that the State Senate—usually Cuomo’s ally against the more liberal Assembly—has proposed all the money de Blasio wants … over the objections of the governor.

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But OK, now let’s talk about that chess match, and the related fact that it is Cuomo, not de Blasio, who is dictating the contours of the story of how New York finally got universal pre-kindergarten.

The governor has revealed and exploited major holes in de Blasio’s strategic and communications apparatus. In the course of funding a significant new expansion for a program that he previously cut, Cuomo out-maneuvered and embarrassed City Hall along the way—from the initial budget announcement to the squashing of de Blasio’s proposed high-earner tax to the drowning out of the mayor’s Albany education rally.

All of which means that, even as de Blasio is denied the credit he deserves for this substantive achievement, the political price he pays will be significant.

There is of course the reputational damage that he continues to sustain. This isn’t just a question of wounded pride: The mayor’s operation is now exposed as severely wanting, undermining the popular mandate he claimed to have and providing yet another reminder to Albany’s decision-makers that there is no price to be paid for trifling with a New York City mayor’s agenda.

Polls show voters do support de Blasio’s educational goals, but it’s hard to argue that the bumps and bruises he incurred during this battle didn’t play some role in the (easily recoverable but significant) decline in his approval ratings.

With this political erosion comes, quite possibly, an erosion of the mayor’s statutory prerogative: In exchange for the pre-K money, the state may force him to give up a significant amount of mayoral power when it comes to schools, with legislators apparently planning to overrule his ability to block charter-school co-locations. The phrase “poison pill” doesn’t begin to describe it.

It happens to be a stunningly hypocritical thing, that some the loudest champions for mayoral accountability of city schools are proposing to undermine it, now that they don’t agree with the mayor’s philosophy. But that’s unlikely to stop them from trying to do so.

And this is all happening at a time when de Blasio will need to make use of much of his remaining political capital, as he sets about the hard work of actually building the citywide prekindergarten program he fought so hard for.

Like President Obama, the mayor expended a tremendous amount of chits early in his first term on an enormous new social program that looks likely to pass by a hair, with alterations to the initial design. With Obamacare, the president was left politically bloodied by the process, and then had to go about the work of building it out. History has revealed how fraught that process became (and remains).

Notwithstanding the bruises he now wears thanks to his dear friend Cuomo, the mayor’s real battle hasn’t yet begun. Creating a new citywide program with classrooms, teachers, sensible schedules, and smooth-running order will consume his team for a very long time. The press will pick apart every problem or setback. So will his enemies. It was the right fight to undertake, and he’s cleared a major hurdle. But this thing is only just beginning.

There’s nothing the mayor can do to get around the enormity of the logistical challenges, but there’s lots he can do to mitigate some of the political ones.

First, he needs to pick his next battles carefully. Being mayor means controversies will find you no matter what. But there are some contentious new initiatives he wants to launch, whose timing and unveiling he can actually control. He should do so with care.

In this case, the mayor had no control over the timing of Albany’s budget process. But he does when it comes to say, horse-carriage bans. If you’re the City Hall senior staff right now, you could sure use a steady, stable few months of quiet, if you can control it. It’s not the time for more fights. Let the team get its sea legs, feel comfortable, and then pick the next battle when the time is right.

Some fights, he can’t control. And on charters, he can’t afford to concede quietly. There’s a larger principle, mayoral accountability, at stake. And there’s a national debate about the sanctity and importance of investing in public schools.

De Blasio has been at his best in this fight when he’s made it less of a one-on-one snip-fest with Eva Moskowitz (which enhances her and diminishes him) and more of a defense of the need to protect the system that educates 94 percent of New York City’s children.

Though you'd never know it from the way his fight with Moskowitz has played out, the polling is on de Blasio’s side. People in the pro-charter movement privately concede that proprietary surveys of city voters are not actually so hot for them (particularly among white liberals). Even in the much-hyped recent public poll showing the mayor only getting the approval of 39 percent of the city (an imprecise number that counts “excellent” and “good” as approval, and “fair” and “poor” as the opposite), 60 percent of those surveyed approved of his emphasis on public schools.

The best way to win this argument? Actually trust New Yorkers to hear and understand a substantive explanation and defense of public schools.

Can you imagine how viral such a moment might be—like Elizabeth Warren’s explanation of social responsibility at a fund-raiser in 2012—if the mayor of New York stood up and gave an impassioned defense of the schools that the vast majority of the city's children still rely on, and of the simple idea that they can't be improved by taking away resources?

For all he’s endured, though, perhaps the biggest lesson of the mayor’s first few months, regards the governor and the pre-K battle: If you have a popular and appealing idea and want Andrew Cuomo to get on board with it, your best chance at success is to indulge his need to claim the idea as his own. Let the governor send out the press release, and trust history to apportion the credit properly.